Caol Ila, Unpeated Style, 12 year, 2010 release, distilled 1997, Single Malt Scotch,
Islay, 57.6%, £52 (700 ml)
Caol Ila, Gordon & Machphail, no age statement, distilled 1995, Single Malt Scotch,
Islay, 40%, £3 (50 ml)
A month and a half before leaving for Scotland last year I met a Glaswegian (that’s a person from Glasgow, if you were wondering) who, in addition to correcting my mispronunciation of Oban, mentioned that “there was nothing quite like a proper Scottish ferry ride”, or something along those lines. While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the six hours I spent on ferries was the highlight of my two week trip, the maritime crossings did have an endearing quality.
It was on the two hour passage from the Kintyre peninsula to Islay that I noticed the vessel’s gift shop was rife with single malt miniatures. One stood out to me, a Caol Ila bottled by Gordon & MacPhail. Where I live, independent bottlings are a rare commodity and single malt minis are almost unheard of; that purchase didn’t require much consideration.
With a fortunate bit of timing, the five minute drive from the Port Askaig ferry terminal to the Caol Ila distillery put us there just in time for the start of the 3:30 tour. We saw the inner workings of the recently renovated distillery, stared in awe at the massive stills, and took in the beautiful sight of the Sound of Islay (for which the distillery is named) through the expansive stillroom windows. Then we were ushered back to the retail space for a generous tasting. It was here that my father decided to pick up a bottle of the unpeated Caol Ila, not being a big fan of the heavily peated style of Scotch.
My memory of what we paid for these two bottles has long since faded, but I’m confident that the numbers I’ve listed above are reasonably accurate estimates.
Caol Ila, Unpeated, 12 year
The nose is mild but smells volatile – light fruit and mild peat riding on a wave of alcohol vapor. It tastes unexpectedly peaty, and becomes a little floral in the mid palate, followed by drying spice notes on the finish. Perhaps natural peat flavors from the source water are accentuated by the high alcohol level and lack of other flavors. Aside from the spice laden finish, it’s hard to believe this is from first fill bourbon casks (as is noted on the label); I’d expect more vanilla, butterscotch, etc. up front and on the mid palate. It’s not bad, but I was expecting more depth and complexity, which would bring a noted improvement.
Caol Ila, Gordon & MacPhail, 1995
The nose is rich with peat and brine. The aromas have good intensity without being overly heavy. On the palate it comes out swinging with a big wave of peat and perhaps just a hint of underlying sweetness. The flavors swell and expand in the wake of the viscous body of liquid. The intensity of its flavor and balancing alcoholic heat seem contrary to the low proof at which it is bottled. The whisky comes across as being fairly youthful up front, and in spite of never showing great complexity it does seem more mature on the lengthy finish. Eventually the finish fades off very gracefully.
This isn’t really a direct comparison, as these two whiskies were tasted many months apart. It is more of and ode to a beautiful day on Islay, a day when two very different bottles of Caol Ila were acquired and the distillery was eagerly toured just minutes after setting foot on the island.
My tasting notes of the standard-issue peated Caol Ila 12 year, which I made during my trip to Florida last winter, are posted here.
I was really quite surprised that the unpeated Caol Ila tasted the way it did. Sure, it had nowhere near the level of peaty intensity found in traditional Caol Ila bottlings, but it was far more smoky than I expected. Of course this set me off on endless hours of research, seeking some sort of an explanation.
The label on the bottle my father had purchased proclaims that unpeated Caol Ila is made just once a year. With a little digging online, I learned that they actually started making it in the mid-80’s to add to the variety of single malts that the blenders would have to work with. Remember, Caol Ila is owned by Diageo, and 95% of the distillery’s production goes into blends, primarily the company’s Johnny Walker bottlings.
But it wasn’t until 2006 that unpeated Caol Ila was released as a single malt (an 8 year old that had been distilled 1997). Several other unpeated bottlings have come out since. I’ve read through many of their reviews, and only those of the 12 year old bottled in 2010 mention noticeable peat flavors.
So, the theory that I had posed in my tasting notes, that the peat flavors came from the water used to make the whisky, seems to be implausible.
The only other explanation I could come up with was that the redistilled feints and foreshots from a previous distillation run of peated whisky had carried over the smoky flavors into the unpeated whisky. As I mentioned in a previous post, during my visit to the distillery we were told that redistilling the feints and foreshots was considered important enough that the distillery had recently held them in a tanker truck outside of the distillery for six months during renovations.
Additionally, I remembered an important bit of information from the Springbank Whisky School. When Frank McHardy was speaking to us about transitioning production between the unpeated Hazelburn, the moderately peated Springbank and the heavily peated Longrow; he mentioned that the feints and foreshots from the first two whiskies could be redistilled into either of the other two, but that after making Longrow the feints and forshots could only be redistilled with Springbank and not Hazelburn, as the peat flavors therein were too strong and would come through on the unpeated whisky.
I was pretty sure I had my answer, but I wanted to run some numbers for my own satisfaction, and I was still curious as to why this phenomenon was unique to the bottling I tasted. Surprisingly, Diageo has production numbers listed online for the various unpeated bottlings (among other limited releases). I found it insightful to group them by the year of distillation:
Distilled in 1997
8 year (59.8%)…………….12990 bottles
12 year (57.6%)……less than 6000 bottles
14 year (59.3%)……….……..5958 bottles
Distilled in 1998
8 year (64.9%).......…………9690 bottles
10 year (65.8%)…...…………6000 bottles
Distilled in 1999
12 year (64.0%)……less than 6000 bottles
Distilled in 2000
8 year (64.2%)……….……..5664 bottles
When I toured the distillery (April of 2012), the guide mentioned that it had been seven years since they made any unpeated Caol Ila. I have seen statements online also mentioning that it has not been produced in recent years due to the increasing popularity of peated whisky. We know there was a bottling from 2000, and it sounds like that last unpeated distillation run was in 2005 or 2004, but it is unknown if any was made during the years in between.
While looking at the production numbers above, the downward trend is obvious, but they paint an incomplete picture. There is no way to know how much has gone into blends or how much is still out there in warehouses, quietly aging. Trying to determine how much unpeated Caol Ila was made each year from the above numbers would be akin to gazing at the night sky and trying to figure out how much dark matter there is in the universe.
But those numbers do still have some relevance. After the unpeated wash has been cycled through the stills once, the feints and foreshots on subsequent batches won’t make a peaty contribution. So, if the smoky flavors are coming from a previous peated run, how much whisky is coming from that first unpeated batch relative to the size of the unpeated single malt bottling in question?
First, I’m making one pretty big assumption – that the three sets of stills at Caol Ila are run in parallel, meaning that the feints and foreshots from each of the three spirit stills are redistilled through the same respective stills. If they are run in series, with the feints and forshots from the first spirit still being redistilled through the second spirit still, and so on, then my numbers would only be 1/3 of what I’m about to calculate.
So, I dug up my notes from Whisky School to get some reference numbers. A distillation run of Springbank produces 1400 liters of spirit. The Springbank spirit still has a capacity of 12,274 liters. The spirit stills at Caol Ila are 30,000 liters each and there are three of them, giving a combined capacity is 90,000 liters. That equates to 10,265 liters of spirit coming from one distillation run (of the three sets of stills). Of course Springbank is using the unusual 2 ½ times distillation and every distiller varies the process in their own way, but I think this number is at least in the right neighborhood.
I know how much water they add to the new make spirit at Springbank before it goes into the casks. I’m assuming Caol Ila adds roughly the same amount, increasing the volume of liquid by about 16%. Then, assuming an annual loss of 3% to evaporation while aging, after 12 years in cask, they would be left with 80.5% of the volume of liquid that originally came off the stills. That leaves us with 8263 liters.
It looks like most of the unpeated Caol Ila goes into 0.7 liter bottles, so I’ll assume all of it does to keep the math simple. That would translate to 11,804 bottles. That’s more than enough to cover the 6000 bottles from the release I’ve tasted. And even if my innitial assumption was wrong, 2/3 of the whisky in each bottle could still be from the first run of unpeated whisky that carried flavors over from the previous peated batch.
Why do we not see this issue with any of the other unpeated releases? I’m guessing that of the three releases that were distilled in 1997, the peaty tasting casks only ended up in the 12 year bottling. Any additional peat-affected cask from 1997, as well as those from other years may all have gone into blends, or they could still be aging in the warehouses, waiting to show up in future releases.
Before my father bought that bottle at the distillery, we had the opportunity to taste a sample. Neither of us remembers it being the least bit peaty. I had assumed that it just wasn’t noticeable after tasting a couple of regular Caol Ila samples. But now I’m considering the possibility that the sample we tasted could have been from a bottle of the unpeated 12 year old that was distilled in 1999.
Sometimes I wonder if I should just drink my whisky and not think about it so much; but I guess that’s not really my nature.